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North Hills Monthly

Help for High Schoolers: Tutoring and Enrichment Can Keep Kids on Track for Success

Dec 31, 2018 07:23PM ● By Jennifer Monahan


Academic pressure in high school can be intense. Whether students are struggling to keep up, looking for enrichment or preparing for SAT and Advanced Placement exams, tutoring and learning centers may be the answer to reducing academic stress.

Students today have a host of learning support options from which to choose, including private tutors, small tutoring businesses, and national tutoring or learning centers. Making the best decision for each family depends on a student’s particular needs. 

Melanie Sittler, owner of Just Math in Gibsonia, works with students who struggle in math and also with students in need of enrichment or coaching for the SAT exam. Sittler explained that personal attention is one of the ways that Just Math is unique among tutoring centers. 

“A lot of conversation happens prior to a student walking in the door,” Sittler said. When a student arrives for the first session, Sittler has typically spoken in depth with the parents about what the student needs and is able to jump right in with instruction on the first lesson. 

“I focus on the math,” Sittler explained. While she does coach high school students to improve their speed in order to be successful on standardized math exams, Sittler said that test-taking strategies are often a byproduct of reinforcing fundamental math skills.

“If a student truly understands the nature of the problem and how to work it, the strategy comes through,” Sittler said. “It’s natural for them to eliminate answers that would not make sense.”

Sittler tailors each program around a student’s individual needs. She offers more frequent 30-minute sessions as well as 60- and 90-minute lessons. Both small group and one-on-one sessions are available.

Another option for students is a tutoring center such as Mathnasium in McCandless and Cranberry Township. Dylan Bilka, center director in McCandless, said Mathnasium benefits students who struggle as well as students looking for math enrichment or test preparation.

A strong focus on foundational skills and conceptualized teaching is what sets Mathnasium apart, Bilka explained, adding that the company's philosophy is to help students comprehend math concepts on a deeper level, so that they understand the “why” rather than just learning how to plug numbers into a formula.

Students typically attend sessions twice each week, although Mathnasium staff can customize more intensive programs if a student requires additional support. Mathnasium offers both individualized and small group lessons; for pre-calculus level math and up, Bilka said one-on-one tutoring tends to be the most effective.

For SAT or ACT test preparation, Bilka said understanding the material is half the battle, while the other half is learning the test-taking strategies needed to be successful on a timed exam. Per its name, Mathnasium prepares students specifically for the math portion of standardized exams. 

Mathnasium’s team-teaching approach is a particular asset, Bilka said. “We can change our approach depending on a student’s needs,” he explained. “Sometimes it helps kids to hear the material explained by a different person in a different way.” Tutors are adept at determining each student’s learning style and adapting their teaching methods accordingly.

A third option for learning enrichment and support is Kumon, which has locations in Wexford and Cranberry Township. Sai Boyalakuntla, owner of the Kumon Learning Center in Wexford and known as “Mrs. Sai” to her students, explained that the Kumon method is not tutoring. 

“We don’t do Band-Aid fixes,” Boyalakuntla said. Instead, Kumon works with students in an ongoing way, usually for a minimum of six months and often for years.

The idea behind Kumon is to improve a student’s independence and academic skills. “We teach efficiency in learning,” Boyalakuntla said. The benefit is that students learn discipline early and often master material ahead of their grade levels.

She said students will get the most out of Kumon’s approach if they begin the program during their elementary years. “Whenever a parent observes a child’s interest in learning, it is a good sign of readiness for Kumon—even for kids as young as four or five years old,” Boyalakuntla said. 

Kumon begins with a complimentary baseline test. From there, students attend Kumon twice each week and complete short (15-20 minute) assignments at home the other five days. 

Boyalakuntla likens the Kumon approach to fitness training; both must be practiced consistently. If an athlete attains overall fitness, she explained, they will excel at any sport. “Essential academic fitness is what Kumon provides,” she added.

Current tenth-grader Kali Ringold received tutoring help in math for two years during middle school and said that she would recommend it to her peers. She initially struggled with mental math and fell behind in sixth grade. “Learning basic mental math made all the other math easier,” Kali explained. “Having that foundation helped me improve my capabilities overall.” 

Brandi Ringold, Kali’s mother, agreed. “Their approach was drill, drill, drill,” she explained. “It worked well for her, although that timed approach would not work for every kid.” 

Ringold added that the tutor’s help was key. “We’d try to help and there were tears and frustration,” she said. “Kids listen when it’s an outside person teaching.”

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